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A brief history of drugs in sports

Modified 18 Mar 2014, 15:12 IST

Ben Johnson on the cover of the Oct. 3, 1988 issue of Sports Illustrated.

In 1988, when Ben Johnson was convicted of using anabolic steroids, The New York Times quoted a Soviet coach’s remark, “I feel sorry for Ben Johnson. All sportsmen, not all, but maybe 90%, including our own, use drugs.”

Thus the history of the use of performance enhancing drugs, and the frequency of use over the years, might be a matter of surprise for many.

Sports is no different from warfare or business, and thus, the ideals of “fairness” and “equality” which sports have been associated with, might just seem too utopian if we were to truly understand the gruesome truth and the ferociousness of competition at the global level, and the amount of physical and mental preparedness required to sustain the immense pressure of competition and training.

In 1933 Dr. Otto Rieser, in his prophetic work ‘Doping and Doping Substances’ states,

“The use of artificial means [to improve performance] has long been considered wholly incompatible with the spirit of sport and has therefore been condemned. Nevertheless, we all know that this rule is continually being broken, and that sportive competitions are often more a matter of doping than of training.”

Although it was in 1933 that Otto Rieser made this statement, the use of performance-enhancing drugs has always had a latent function in sports since its very inception.

The early stages

“The Greek physician, Galen, is reputed to have prescribed ‘the rear hooves of an Abyssinian ass, ground up, boiled in oil, and flavoured with rose hips and rose petals’ to improve performance.” – (U.S.A Olympic Committee,1995)

Ancient Olympic athletes attempted to spike testosterone levels (the hormone that anabolic steroids are designed to produce) by eating sheep testicles, a prime source for testosterone. In the Roman era, horses were fed various substances to increase speed and endurance, and the gladiators were administered unspecified stimulants to overcome fatigue and injury (Wadler & Hainline, 1989) to make their fights more intense. Besides using strychnine, a stimulant still used in the 20th century, the athletes of yore also used hashish, cola plants, cactus-based stimulants and fungi, with varying success.


Many speculate that the annulment of the ancient Olympic Games could also be attributed to extravagant use of drugs, particularly pharmacological agents such as extracts of mushrooms and plant seeds.

The use of stimulants also dates back to the Greeks who drank various brandy and wine concoctions (Voy, 1991) and ate hallucinogenic mushrooms and sesame seeds to enhance performance.

The ancient Norse warriors were also among the early users of hallucinogenic mushrooms, meant to increase their fighting strength ‘twelve-fold’. (Prokop, 1970: 45).

With advent of the Christian era, the popularity of the games dwindled, and it was finally abolished in 393 A.D by Emperor Theodosius.

Modern sports and doping

It was in the middle of the 19th century that sports encountered a period of revival, and it gradually transformed from a means of recreation and entertainment into a business phenomenon.

The first documented case of doping was in 1865, when Dutch swimmers were convicted of using stimulants. Not long afterwards, in the late 19th century, European cyclists were caught using a multitude of drugs – from caffeine to ether-coated sugar cubes to Vin Mariani, a widely used mixture of coca leaf extract and wine, in order to alleviate pain and exhaustion. In 1886, a Dutch cyclist died from an overdose of cocaine and heroin, and in 1896, a Welsh cyclist, Arthur Linton, died after taking strychnine (the same substance used by the ancient Romans).


It was later in 1896, with the rebirth of the Olympic Games, that a wider number of drugs gained popularity in their use and availability such as codeine and strychnine.

One of the earliest accounts of doping was that of Thomas Hicks in the third Olympic Games in St. Louis in 1904. During the race, Hick was given multiple doses of brandy laced with strychnine. After he collapsed upon crossing the finish line, it took four doctors to revive him sufficiently to rush him to the hospital. Nevertheless, he was able to keep his gold medal.

Later, in the early period of the 20th century, there seems to be a stark decline in the number of cases of doping, even in the absence of bans or doping tests. This was mainly because of the widespread awareness about the lethal effects of drugs, and the reported deaths. This in turn, would caution many athletes about the dire effects of these drugs. Only special potions, tinctures, lotions and herbal extracts were utilized in this period, with minimum causalities.

The emergence of anabolic steroids

 By the 1930s, Nazi doctors had created anabolic steroids such as testosterone that could be administered through a syringe. Thus, in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Germany won the overall medal count with 89 medals, and the United States came in second with 56 medals.


After World War II, political conditions greatly affected athletic developments. The USSR, with the aid of captured German doctors, developed new anabolic steroids, and worked to exert their political prowess through athletic performances. It was now not merely a matter of individuals competing against each other for medals; instead, the political strife came to be reflected in these games. In their first appearance in the 1952 Summer Olympics in Helsinki, Finland, USSR procured 71 medals.

The USA and the USSR not only led the armament race, but also the development of new potent anabolic steroids, with better advanced facilities, and a large group of chemists and physicians. From the 1960s onwards, the use of drugs was evident in every sport, from football to weightlifting and track & field, and the direct result was a sharp increase in performance.

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Published 18 Mar 2014, 15:12 IST
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